"The economic foundation of cities is trade," proclaimed the great urbanist Jane Jacobs in her book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Jacobs’ statement remains just as – if not more – relevant for cities and metropolitan areas as it was a half-century ago.
The Great Recession revealed the limitations of an inward-focused, debt-fueled U.S. economy. It coincided with a structural shift in the global economic order towards rapidly industrializing and urbanizing nations like Brazil, India and China. By 2012, a majority of the 50 top performing metropolitan economies worldwide were in developing Asia-Pacific countries. U.S. metros must take advantage of growing demand abroad by developing export and engagement strategies that build on their special assets in the global economy.
Atlanta is well positioned to thrive in a more export-oriented economy. Metro Atlanta – the 13th largest metro exporter in the United States – sent $20 billion worth of goods and services abroad in 2010, which supported nearly 152,000 jobs in the region. It houses many multi-national corporations such as Home Depot, Coca-Cola and UPS; innovative small and medium-sized firms; and several world-class research universities, and it maintains a strong international brand from its hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympics. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and the Port of Savannah form an important U.S. logistics hub and a gateway to world markets.
How can Atlanta build on its unique assets and strengths to maintain and expand its position in markets abroad?
The region has already taken the first step. Two weeks ago, Mayor Kasim Reed announced the launch of an Atlanta Metropolitan Export Plan that will be developed in collaboration with some of the region’s key business, political, university and non-profit leaders. The next step will be to conduct a market assessment of regional industries, identify the metro’s strengths and weaknesses, and determine what policies and investments are necessary to grow exports.
It is critical for Atlanta to progress beyond a place through which goods and people flow by doubling down on becoming more of a center for advanced production and services. This transformation, from port to production or from airport to aerospace, will not just happen. It will require smart and strategic investments in areas such as advanced research and development, education and infrastructure.
A clear option would be to better leverage and commercialize the advanced research conducted at its major universities. One success story is Suniva Inc., a manufacturer of high-efficiency solar cells and high power solar modules, which spun out of Georgia Tech’s University Center of Excellence in Photovoltaics. Three years after its founding, the company was named “Renewable Energy Exporter of the Year” in 2010 by the U.S. Export-Import Bank after selling more than 90 percent of its products abroad in 2009.
The Atlanta region has the tools to flourish in the global economy. It’s time for its leaders to take the steps necessary for the region to realize its full potential.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on April 10, 2013.